The World Trade Center bombing happened eleven days before my twenty-third birthday. That was fifteen years ago. At the time I worked at a laundromat, ironing shirts on a steam press. My boss was a veteran and a Gene Hackman look alike. We saw the attack on a small television bolted to the wall that he would watch from the front desk as he greeted customers. He told me that the people responsible for the attack are Bedouins that live in caves in the Middle East. I remember thinking to myself, 'how the hell do nomadic tribes that live in caves do that to the World Trade Center?'
There is a diptych that I painted on plywood, sometime before 9-11 that seems to have something rather prophetic about it.
In the upper area of the painting on the right, I painted the Twin Towers. Below it I painted "I (HEART) NY." I know for a fact that I painted this before 9-11, but for some reason, my mind was focused on New York, and on those two buildings, even though I was thousands of miles away in the mountains of Northern Arizona.
In 2002, I moved to Philadelphia to study at the Tyler School of Art. The war in Afghanistan had been going on since just after the attacks, and plans to invade Iraq were underway. I attended a protest march that winter from North Philadelphia to Center City.
In 2003, Iraq was invaded. I was studying in Rome, and became totally enthralled by the Renaissance. I loved sketching and doing studies inspired by the Renaissance masters. But my work also started to be influenced by the war—and by a feeling of darkness that pervaded the world. Black became a predominant color in my paintings, and baroque tenebrism became juxtaposed with Islamic geometric motifs. The geometry became precise, like the drafting of cartographic coordinates.
My work from Rome is still there, where I rented a room at the time, so I can't post anything from that period.
In the spring of 2004, I began studying under the conceptual artist Osvaldo Romberg. He was the father of my friend and filmmaker David Romberg, who I went to school with at the time. Osvaldo is known for doing very precise copies of Renaissance paintings. He often juxtaposes them with abstract paintings, to represent was he considers the 'compression of art history.'
I loved studying in Osvaldo's studio. It gave me a chance to pick up where I left off with studying the Renaissance, but through the theoretical world of Romberg. I hadn't been doing very well at Tyler since I began there, but since going to Rome and gaining a classical focus, criticism from the faculty got much worse even still. My grades dropped more and more and I was eventually pushed out of the program completely.
I then began studying in Osvaldo's studio full time. I first attempted to reproduce a Vermeer, but failed and painted over it. My next attempt was of a Cagnacci, which Osvaldo thought turned out quite well.
Just prior to this, we were both producing work about van Gogh. As apprentice, I emulated Osvaldo's work by placing something on top of my copy. But instead of using geometric abstraction, I placed an image of van Gogh's painting of an almond tree across the woman's chest, spread apart like a Japanese folding screen.
It was from this point on that my work began to be permeated with the color black once again, as it was during my time in Rome.
This was late 2004 – early 2005. The war in Iraq raged on, culminating in two bloody battles in Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, where the US was under heavy fire from the insurgency. Images of humiliation and torture on behalf of American troops at the detention facility flooded the media.
It was a dark, cold winter in Philly, and it felt darker thinking about what was going on with the war. My studio became a battleground. The line of a drawing became a strategy. My drawings became prototypes.
I saw a Cy Twombly exhibition that year at the Whitney Museum that changed the course of my work as well. The exhibition featured a large collection of his works on paper from the mid-1950s when he worked for the US Army as a cryptographer. I made this piece when I got home, as a way to express something about the war, and something that I saw in his own life:
I began incorporating cryptographic elements into my own work, combining linguistic symbols and numbers. The war must have a solution, only to be unveiled through the untangling of coded language.
From my studio in Philadelphia, I remembered Rome and the things that I saw. I remembered the Pietà. And then I remembered the Pantheon, when my eyes caught the shaft of sunlight streaming through the oculus. And then I remembered looking down into Raphael's tomb, and reading the inscription of Roman numerals on the small plaque near the sarcophagus: MCXMVII.